Into the West
“He might be the best catcher I’ve ever seen. He could retire right now and go into the Hall of Fame. Johnny Bench had more power, but Bench never had this guy’s quickness.” – Blue Jays manager Jim Fregosi, on Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez after the 1999 season
“He was the complete catcher, incredibly durable and intimidating behind the plate but also a very good hitter. It is remarkable he played at such a high level for so long. I am amazed at the number of games he caught, the 13 Gold Gloves he won. That’s truly impressive. “ – Bench, on Rodriguez
There’s something about Texas.
Maybe it’s the hardness of the land, in its vastness. It’s diversity and yet the determination of its people to hold to handed-down sets of views and values.
Whatever it may be, this much is for sure: we love the idea of the “fight in the dog, not the dog in the fight.”
Heck, even that quote itself has been appropriated. If you ask native Texans, they’ll swear it’s about the Alamo.
It’s not. Mark Twain—the original Samuel Clements of Florida, Missouri—originated it; moreover, the sentiment is timeless.
Now, to be clear, being Texans, we just plain embrace bigger, faster, stronger—and we’re quick to claim things we love as our own, even if they’re not from here.
So we love, and quickly adopt, anyone who ACTS bigger, faster, stronger – even if that’s bigger, faster, or stronger than he or she ought to be. It’s in our DNA, from the Alamo to San Jacinto, from Willie Shoemaker to Ross Perot..
And if you’re one of those, if we didn’t birth you, you can bet we’ll try to claim you soon as we can.
Pudge had to be a Texas Ranger. He wasn’t bigger. He wasn’t stronger. But like Nolan Ryan before him, nobody was faster with that gun.
And like Nolan, as Evan Grant recalled leading up to his induction to Cooperstown, oh, how he worked. With medicine ball work and squats even after a 9-inning game in an Arlington August, with morning miles when many were still sleeping off the price of the night before, he worked to play taller than his 5’9”, and stronger than his 205 squat pounds.
That sweat equity gave him, regardless of his Puerto Rican roots, Texas bonafides.
He was our fastest gun in the west, and soon, we would learn, THE fastest gun. Period.
Now, he is, deservedly and undoubtedly, the first homegrown Ranger Hall of Famer.
“The first time I threw to Pudge and saw him, I really thought he was going to be a good receiver, and he had a great arm, we all knew that. I never anticipated or expected, I don’t think, for him to have the career that he had and have the impact on the (Texas) organization that he had. It was really exciting and fun to watch.” – Nolan Ryan, on Pudge Rodriguez
I could pick from hundreds of memories of Pudge, from 1991 to just a week ago, in Arlington watching his number retired with my mom at my side, and most would share something in common: family.
My favorite memory was no different.
But to understand why it matters, you’ve got to know where and with whom the memory took place.
According to Wikipedia, HDTV sets became available in the U.S. in 1998 and broadcasts began around November 1998. I have to disagree.
According to Webster’s, “high definition” means, “a high degree of detail in an image or screen.”
By those terms, the first time I saw anything in high-definition on TV was a good seven years earlier.
It was June 20, 1991, the second game of a twin-bill in Chicago and the 61st game in a solid but unspectacular Rangers season.
On that day, on an old Magnavox set in Ennis, Texas, I saw—in clear detail—the greatest-throwing catcher God ever made. Little did I know how little of the picture I was seeing, no matter how clearly.
Most of us thought the most significant moment of the season came May 1, when Nolan Ryan hurled one of the most dominant games of his career, his 7th no-hitter, against Toronto. But it wasn’t.
No, the most significant Rangers moment of 1991 came on that June night in Chicago. The HD moment came in the 3rd inning. Joey Cora, Chicago’s second baseman, was on first. Kevin Brown, never known as a master of holding runners, was on the mound. And a 19-year old , 5’9” fireplug from Manati, Puerto Rico by way of Tulsa was behind the dish.
Cora tried to test the kid.
And that was when Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez put his arm on display in high def, even on my grandparent’s aged TV set in Ennis, Texas.
Anyone who saw that throw from Pudge, or his next cannon, which beat Warren Newson by a good five feet to second base, saw as clearly as possible that whatever standard they’d previously used for “good arm” had been surpassed.
I can’t remember what Pudge did that day at the plate, or if he caught the full game (Baseball Reference shows me he singled in two runs, and did go the full nine). But I remember those throws, on my grandfather’s Magnavox, as clearly as if it were last week on a 64” Ultra HD 4K screen.
I remember the announcer’s words—I can’t say who it was—to the letter: “This Rodriguez can some kinda throw.” I remember, too, my grandfather, who was a little more tight with a compliment than, say, a hometown announcer, or a catholic school nun. He just looked at me, made a comically surprised face, eyes wide and lips pursed, then said, “That little catcher sure can throw.” He spent the rest of his life—another solid 18 years—trying to come up with superlatives for, as he said with warmth and endearment “that little Puerto Rican.”
To earn praise from my grandfather was special. Pudge was so special, he got a lifetime pass. Mistakes were forgiven. Accomplishments were overblown.
But mostly, I remember my grandfather’s reaction to watching Pudge play.
He would smile. Ear to ear.
That’s what I’ll remember about Pudge. A smile my 78-year-old best friend and I shared, then and across generations, every time we saw him play.
“I don’t want to be traded. I want to stay here. I want to wear this Rangers uniform my entire career.” –Rodriguez, to Tom Schieffer, at the 1997 trade deadline, according to Pudge’s autobiography, They Call Me Pudge.
Remember, he loved us back. That’s easy to forget, because he didn’t end up spending his whole career here – a rarity surely nobody would hold against him. But there was a time when we almost lost him in his prime.
In July 1997, the Rangers traded Ken Hill, the anchor of the rotation on that 1996 Rangers first-time Division-winning squad, for Jim Leyritz; he was no Pudge behind the plate, but he was an offensive-first backstop who could replace Pudge’s bat while filling in adequately as a catcher.
Then, only 26 and in his prime, Pudge seized control of his destiny. He met Schieffer. He told him he wanted to be a Ranger for life. He signed for well below what the market would have borne.
That meeting made him a Sports Illustrated cover boy and a Texas legend.
He left after 2002 to sign with the Marlins, where he’d spend one championship season, then spend the majority of the rest of his career with Detroit, going back to the World Series in 2006. He bounced around, passing on his legend and legacy to a new generation.
“Pudge broke into the Major Leagues in 1991, so when he came to our team practically 20 years later he’d played over 2,300 big league games. And yet, what stays with me most about Pudge was watching him work those two years, work he did before he even stepped on the field…He challenged you to raise the level of your game. You couldn’t watch him, couldn’t see the way he went about his business and how he treated the game, and not want to put in that same amount of effort.” – Ryan Zimmerman. Washington Nationals Teammate, 2010 and 2011.
He even spending a stint with the hated Yankees and new-rival Astros before it was all said and done.
But he never left us. Not really.
Not when it mattered, in the middle of the first Ranger run of Octobers that mattered.
Not in the end, when (in one of my favorite symbolic trends these days) he signed a one-day contract to retire a Ranger.
Not where it mattered. We were never far from his heart. And so, forever, he’ll have a place in ours.